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The Holy Spirit in Female Form: Medieval Tales of Faith and Heresy

By Cait Stevenson

Dominican nun Adelheit Geishörnlin had a special request: there was nothing she wanted more fervently than to experience the Holy Spirit coming down upon her, as had the disciples at Pentecost. The Adelhausen Schwesterbuch (collective/community hagiography) records her sisters’ astonishment at the answered prayer in actions: Geishörnlin danced and whirled frantically around the altar, blood streaming from her nose. What did not astonish them was that even at the height of religious women’s spiritual, physical, and visionary devotion to the humanity of Christ, what mattered most to Geishörnlin at that point in time was the Holy Spirit.

The third person of the Trinity has never really drawn the attention of medievalists. Some of this might parallel a general trend in mainstream Christianity. Barbara Newman, for example, has discussed how Trinitarian iconography in the fifteenth century sometimes becomes a “Holy Family” of God the Father, God the Son—and Mary. (Sometimes, though, the Holy Spirit is presented as a dove. The family pet?) The Christological disputes at the early Church council undoubtedly produced more dramatic legends than pneumatological ones.

And maybe more to the point for medievalists in particular, popular and monastic devotional practices regarding Christ (and Mary and saints) tend to be so flashy that, really, why would you look elsewhere?

Joachim of Fiore knew why.

The twelfth-century “Calabrian monk” was one of, if not the single, most important apocalyptic theologians of the Middle Ages. He drew out of his intensive studies of Scripture a belief that human history was divided into a very trinitarian three ages (rather than the classic/Augustinian seven). Two thirds of it corresponded to standard Christian theology of history: the Age of the Father was the Old Testament anthropocene, the rule of Law. The Age of the Son was the New Testament and the Church founded upon it. What Joachim fervently anticipated in the immediate generations to come was the Age of the Holy Spirit—the era of a new closeness to God, a depth of understanding, a reign of love. At a time when the second coming of Christ meant judgment, Joachim found hope in the Holy Spirit. And more to the point, so did the people he inspired. And the Church was generally not too happy about this.

Image of Joachim of Fiore from 1516.

Guglielma of Milan (d. 1280) and Na Prous Boneta of Montpelier (d. 1328) had quite a bit in common. Both came as immigrants to an adopted city in the arc of Italian-southern French religious culture. Both demonstrated charismatic gifts—Guglielma, healing; Na Prous, ecstatic visions. Both cultivated a quiet life of piety that spiraled into their establishment as the nexus of a lay community. Guglielma found support from the local Cistercians; Na Prous had strong connections with local Franciscans. Of course they had their differences, too. Namely, Guglielma died quietly and was interred in honor in a Cistercian graveyard. Na Prous was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake.

Our only information about Na Prous’ personal beliefs comes from her testimony before the inquisition. But as with Joan of Arc, the personality that comes through even the language disjunction (she spoke in Provencal but the transcript is Latin) and the hostile roadmap to confession of the inquisitors offers insight into her beliefs and their strength. Na Prous first received apocalyptic visions of herself as the “woman clothed with the sun” of Revelation 12. Escalating Church persecution of Spiritual Franciscans, among whom Na Prous associated, only seemed to intensify her visionary experiences. In 1321, she had a very Joachim vision:

Francis of Assisi and Peter Olivi (more or less Joachim’s heir) were the Enoch and Elijah of the dawning Third Age, the Age of the Spirit. This Age would wash away the Church, the Eucharist, the papacy, the clerical order overall. And heralding in this new Age was Na Prous Boneta, guardian and embodiment of the Holy Spirit.

For those of you keeping score at home, advocating or prophesying the abolition of the Church, of the Eucharist, of the papacy, and of the priesthood are basically ways A, B, C, and D to get yourself condemned as a heretic. And like the Beguines and Spiritual friars of the 1310s before her, Na Prous Boneta went to the stake in 1325.

Guglielma of Milan shared Na Prous Boneta’s status as an independent, charismatic religious woman. She too was a leader; she too was a leader of an eschatologically minded community. Guglielma arrived in Milan as an adult, unannounced and unadorned; she promptly took up an independent religious life outside a formal monastic order. Naturally, contemporaries would fill in a background for her out of the most plausible options for a pinzochera—like maybe she was  a widow, or maybe she was the crown princess of Bohemia.

During the politically tumultuous and spiritually disastrous years of the ecclesiastical interdict on Milan, which forbade distribution of the Eucharist or celebration of the liturgy, Guglielma apparently represented a center of calm reassurance for town citizens. Her reputation as a charismatic healer and possible reception of stigmata were the signs marking her holy, a special conduit to God already in her lifetime; her religious teaching seems to have focused on building community and not exploiting other people for (especially) financial gain.

When Guglielma died, around 1281, all the elements of a saint’s cult sprang into place. Her body at one point had to be moved from a parish graveyard to the burial ground at the Cistercian monastery; it was considered a translation of relics. Pilgrims flocked to her tomb and reported miracles of healing; the monastery delegated a particular monk to keep watch and record each miracle for a canonization packet. The monks had a special liturgy dedicated to what they hoped would become the official feast day of St. Guglielma.

If you’re saying to yourself, “Wait a minute, she actually sounds nothing like Na Prous Boneta at all,” you’re right—but hold up a moment, because you haven’t met Guglielma’s followers. In her lifetime and afterward, Guglielma seems to have attracted two levels of followers. One group saw her as a holy woman and teacher specially graced by God. After her death they made pilgrimages to her grave and prayed to her as an intercessor.

The other group saw her as the Holy Spirit.

The really fascinating thing about Guglielma’s purported career as the Holy Spirit’s vessel or messenger or outright incarnation is that, according to the testimony of her followers themselves, absolutely none of it came from her. In fact, there are numerous stories of her outright denials. Some stories just include her insistence that she was an evil, low woman not fit to be the Holy Spirit’s messenger. Other people went further in their belief in her.

In one case, two lay brothers at the monastery had apparently made a bet over whether or not she was the actual incarnation of the Spirit. Guglielma “very angrily, as it seemed, replied to them that she was flesh and bones and had even brought a son into the city of Milan; and she was not what they believed; and unless they did penance for those words they had said about her, they would go to hell.”

Framed miniature of the Virgin and Disciples with the dove descending at Pentecost. British Library MS Additional 35254T, U and V f. U recto

And yet, over her denials in life and with the memory of them still ringing after her death, Guglielma’s closest followers—among the wealthier and more educated citizens in Milan—wove her into the apocalyptically hopeful understanding of history of Joachim of Fiore. Guglielma as the Holy Spirit heralded the dawn of a new age and a new Church, abolishing the old corrupt one of the second age and superseding the authority of the pope.

These were dangerous beliefs to hold in any age of inquisition, and indeed, the first murmurs of official suspicion pop up in the historical record in 1284. But a combination of apparently scattered heterodox believers and the Church’s traditional granting of mercy to first-time convicted heretics meant this first brief spark of persecution failed to catch fire.

But twenty years later, Guglielma’s inner circle had grown and strengthened into a little movement of its own, the so-called Gugliemites. Maifreda da Pirovano, an Umiliate nun, established herself as the “vicar of the Spirit on Earth,” setting up almost a model female priesthood through sermons and (the inquisitors extracted under torture) distributing consecrated Eucharist Host.

Artist Mirano da Garbagnate, who had known the holy woman firsthand, painted her face as key saints in his church artwork. Followers celebrated Guglielma’s feast day at Pentecost, and met frequently throughout the year to venerate her and, most likely, discuss and understandings of her relationship with the Holy Spirit.

And this, now? Inquisitors saw a sect, an organized group devoted to a perilous heresy of belief in a female incarnation of the Holy Spirit and colluding to destroy the Church and the papacy, with a good dose of sacrilege against the sacraments. The Gugliemites were tried and convicted of heresy—and three of them burned at the stake for their beliefs.

But this wasn’t enough. The inquisitors ordered Guglielma’s body exhumed and burned to a crisp – to end any chance of a saint’s cult with relics and as a symbol of their retroactive belief that she, too, was a heretic now in hell.

Heretics being burned at the stake, from a 14th century French manuscript – Bib. Ste. Genevieve MS.777 fol. 410r

I put Guglielma, the persecution of her cult, and Na Prous Boneta together to demonstrate a fascinating phenomenon.  Twenty-five years before Na Prous was burned at the stake for declaring herself the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, inquisitors took testimony of a variety of relationships between Guglielma and the third Person of the Trinity to project a claim of a woman incarnating the Holy Spirit twenty years backwards in time.

Both proponents and opponents of Joachim’s apocalyptically hopeful theology were swimming in the same religious ideas—ideas in which the theology of the Holy Spirit and its role in human history played a pivotal role.

There’s no question, from the standpoint of modern scholarship, that Joachim was proven wrong: the Latin Middle Ages would remain firmly, maybe even increasingly, the Age of the Son. Christocentric piety spiraled ever-tighter and wider across late medieval Europe. But as the cases of Guglielma and Na Prous Boneta demonstrate, maybe it is time we also thought about the Holy Spirit.

Cait Stevenson earned her PhD in medieval history from the University of Notre Dame. Click here to read more from Cait.

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: Head of a Woman, from 14th century France – image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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